The first time I painted a crucifix it was back in 2010. I hadlaunched my website gallery and it was one of the first enquiries I received. I was thrilled. The client had just restored a house on Orkney and wanted a painted crucifix for it. (He asked why I wasn't advertising in The Church Times or The Tablet: but if you've ever inquired about the prices in those two publications you'll know one would have to be more of a Damien Hurst than a penniless iconographer to afford any space there.) That first crucifix of mine was of the type known as 'Christus patiens', showing a dead Christ, eyes closed, bloodied, hanging limp and twisted from his nails. This is the style of crucifix we in Western Europe see more often than the older Byzantine type - 'Christus gloriosus' - where Jesus is shown upright with arms outstretched, eyes open. The famous Franciscan Cross of St Damiano is of this kind.
More than seven years on, and mindful of the old adage about the cobbler's children going unshod, I decided it was time I made a crucifix for our own home. Most things I paint are commissions or are for sale elsewhere, so no sooner do we get used to something being on the wall than it disappears. I'm glad of that really, it gives me the chance to try again. Though I shan't be trying again with a crucifix unless I can buy a ready-made blank. I had forgotten how difficult a shape it is to cut without specialist equipment. Casting around the internet for my inspiration, I ran across some wonderful images from the Franciscan museum in Zadar, Croatia. Another one for the bucket list.... If you make it there before I do, please abandon the beach one day in favour of this place and report back. Croatia is a bit of a hybrid East-meets-West place, iconographically speaking. A largely Catholic country, but with many influences from the East. The 11th century cross which I took as my chief model shows Christ standing rather than hanging, calm and strong. He is not twisted and emaciated or smothered in gore. Instead of a loin cloth he sports a rather fetching sort of brocade kilt which I lifted wholesale. But what I really wanted - and failed - to recreate was the magnificent face of Christ in my second, black and white image below. Also from Zadar, from a nunnery destroyed by Allied bombing during the second world war, tragically this partial photo seems to be all that remains of this most haunting icon.
I just viewed another wonderful video by Attila Gazo of www.masterpigments.com about the production of blue pigment from mineral azurite. Find it here on YouTube by cut and pasting the link in your browser: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OcMCGNNzxtk.
A divine colour, azurite, as important in later medieval western art as lapis lazuli. If I could afford to, I would splash it on all over. I love it in its purest grades, as in this tiny illuminated letter T (back of a pendant jewel I made for my daughter): -
- and just as much in its lesser grades, as the greenish shade I used for Christ's robe in this icon of the Confession of Thomas.
I once harboured ambitions to make my own pigments, but just looking at the equipment and repetitive processes involved in Attila's work is enough to make one come over faint. Quite a risky business too, given the toxicity of some of these pigments. Check out his videos on the production of lead white and cinnabar.
Some art deserves to be less noticed, and I have to admit that sadly most of the contents of the Salzburg Cathedral Museum fall squarely into that category. Worse still, the reputedly magnificent apartments of the former prince-bishops were closed for restoration, so I found myself scooting past quantities of truly dire (but impressively large) canvases, an entire corridor of curiosity cabinets with several hundred years' worth of dead animals and other dusty relics in them, and various other forbidding remains, wondering whether the fabulously wealthy bishops of Salzburg were just less efficient than their contemporaries in looting the best religious art, or whether they preferred to keep their wealth at home and commission only from the locals at the expense of quality. But then in the very last display case (which displayed, unaccountably, a huge pair of Dutch clogs) I read a querulous note complaining of Nazi thefts and Allied bombings, which went some way to explaining it. But I spent time there, it being a cold January day, and a few things did catch my eye at random:-
My Nativity icon for this year is a miniature on vellum, only six inches square. It will be framed and is for sale, should the spirit move anyone to own it! I have arranged the design as a quincunx, four circles around one, a geometrical arrangement with many resonances in Christian symbolism. I broke out a new precious pigment from Attila at Master Pigments for the dark blue used in this design, a rare mineral called vivianite, also known as blue ochre. It is very finely ground and a easier to apply than lapis lauzuli. Unlike lapis, it mixes with white without being overwhelmed. Also from Master Pigments were the vermilion, purple earth, and my favourite green volksonkoite - another rare mineral, this one from Russia. The florid decorative treatment is inspired by a margin I spied on the Abbey Bible, an Italian manuscript of the mid-1200s owned by the Getty Museum. By the way, the Getty is really wonderful at making digital images of its collection available on the internet for private study.
Have a blessed Advent and a joyful Christmas all!
The view from my desk
Current work, places and events, art travel, and interesting snippets about Christian icons, medieval art, manuscript illumination, egg tempera , gilding, technique and materials.